Misplaced Apologies: Sorry because of Nothing

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This morning smells of coffee as I resist to urge to get a second coffee fix from Starbucks. It is exciting to be starting work at 9A.M. (rather than the usual half or quarter past 8A.M.) – allows me a relaxing morning seated at my favourite high seat in Starbucks, writing. The coffee house is empty, except for its diligent staff, and the sun illuminates this space from the back, shining in through the full-length glass panels that enclose this space. Today’s thoughts are on the apologies we misplace: the pretense in the “I’m sorry” that we don’t mean or the empty pleas for forgiveness when we have done nothing we deem to be wrong.

Years ago, as an active volunteer of UPstars tutoring program, I had the privilege of leading a team in the repainting and packing of the space we used for class. We transformed the blood red walls that induced anger and distress into an azure blue, donning the walls with images of nature accompanied by quotes about “kindness”, “courage”, “perseverance” and “forgiveness”. I vividly remember the one for “forgiveness” – “Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them,” we painted. Often within the space of the classroom, we preached to the young ones about the importance of apologizing for whatever they had done wrong. It was the key to conflict resolution. Stationery taken without permission, drawing on someone’s work, being disrespectful: “What must you say?” “Sorry.”

The magic to an apology that resolves countless conflicts is the idea that at the heart of an apology is the acknowledgement that what has been done shouldn’t have been. It is an expression of hope to be forgiven and to be treated no differently for something done: an expression of regret. When I was younger, I recall how “sorry” might have been the most difficult word to say exactly because of the inner feelings we were exemplifying while expressing our apology with sincerity – in saying “I’m sorry”, I often felt like I was placing myself in a vulnerable position in face of the person I was apologizing to.  The hesitation and the difficulty in expressing the apology was exactly because “I’m sorry” carried significant weight.

I have always felt that lessons we learn about how to treat one another lose clarity as we grow up, and unnecessarily so. The one on when to say “sorry” is one of them. Increasingly, the complications we associate to an apology potentially undermine the value of the plea for forgiveness. Allow me to clarify that in this case, I am not referring to the apologies we express to those we care for dearly even when we haven’t done anything wrong. Such apologies, I deem to be relatively justified and similarly weighted as they involve putting ourselves in a vulnerable position because what is at stake (the relationship) is something we are concerned about deeply. The sincerity in the apology is derived from the desire to preserve the relationship. Rather, I am hoping to revisit how professions that involve customer service, for example, often induce an environment where we apologize excessively – the instances where we amplify our sense of entitlement to induce a meaningless apology. (I once wrote about this earlier when I was working in Macdonalds’ Fast Food Restaurant)

It seems we have an innate desire to feed our esteem at the expense of others who are made to feel inferior. In the context of customer service, “the customer is always right” is our safety net and our sense of entitlement, our weapon. Attack. The “I’m sorry” that follows is nothing short of fear that we misunderstand for submission and respect. This is breeding ground for a culture of excessive apologies – the value of our apologies shall proceed in a never-ending downward fashion every time we abuse “I’m sorry” for instances where we have little (or nothing) to be expressing remorse for.

To all those who have induced these apologies from me, I’m so sorry that I’m not.

What Grades Cannot Grade

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Some say the question should not be, “what do you want to study?” but “what is the change you want to be?” or “what do you want to do for others?”. Answer the last two questions, and then work backwards to what logical steps you might take at this point with the choices you’re meant to make. Looking at the big picture helps, but the uncertainty remains and makes what we call “our future” indefinitely fuzzy – you can’t be sure when you might change your mind or what revelations you may make in time to come. The learning and experiencing never stops: we may never be sure and that’s okay. This piece is in reflection of what the recent result release has meant for me, 8 days from d-day and counting.

This week began with following a friend to the “Retaking ‘A’ Levels” Sharing by the Thought Collective, a gathering of about 30 odd people in The Red Box that they also refer to as “repeat night”. Taking turns to share their stories of resilience, I could only imagine the feelings of loneliness, abandonment, humiliation and disappointment that these individuals had withstood in face of their results and a society that judges the people we are, based on the grades we receive. “I have lived with the stigma of being a ‘failure’ ever since” and “My parents didn’t speak to me for two weeks, I had disappointed them.” – Can you imagine? Who should ever deserve to judge themselves or by others to be ‘failures’? Never, regardless of grades. In an essay I recently peer evaluated for a friend, she expressed her criticism to the system that teaches us to judge one another and ourselves based on grades: “You can never grade ambition, sense of adventure and creativity”, she wrote. Growing up with excellent results more often than not, I liked to think that I was special. I was taught to believe that the future that lay ahead of me was bright because of my grades and that the relation between the two was closely-knit. I was taught, also, to credit myself for the achievement of the results – the results themselves rather than the values that I exemplified in pursuit of those grades. But as tears welled up in my eyes just listening to these individuals’ stories of bravery, I am reminded to attribute every person’s strength to what is within them instead of their external achievements. Each and every one of them were stronger for the choices they had chosen to make in times of crisis, that made them special. And then, what is truly in a grade is more than what the grades themselves can show us.

Allow me to qualify myself. I do value the strengths of a meritocracy: my share of non-fiction reads by renowned economists (Michael J. Sandel and Joseph Stiglitz, amongst others) allows me to understand the economic sense that a meritocracy makes. Ensuring that the best people for the jobs are rewarded the suitable opportunities accordingly, our economic development in modern history certainly has our religious belief in meritocracy to thank. That, though, is part of Singapore’s success story and so is the association of grades to value. In this time when we internalize our ‘A’ Level results and decide what it means for us, the decisions we make should be designed to create our own success story and no one else’s.

I’m just saying: I think grades should just be grades (as in, the assessment of our performance in a one-off trial at proving a set of knowledge). It is a race against ourselves to be better than we were and to be the best that we can be. Where these intentions have been met, the grades should proudly stand as proof of that.

Every year, there are 1200 private candidates retaking their ‘A’ Levels. This excludes the many others who courageously go back to their schools to retake JC2. We have had 40 years of the ‘A’ Levels private candidature system, which makes 48, 000 individuals who ‘fall through the cracks’, facing self-doubt, the sense of being trapped and excluded for their grades. Imagine that. Tonight, I am on a long bus ride that brings back many memories for this is the route that I took home for years while studying in RGS. One of my best lessons from my alma mater was exactly this – to value people for their verve and passion, the causes they believed in and the convictions they stood for. These are what make people people and it is with this understanding that our regard for one another becomes humane.

Bravado

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Bravado refers to a “pretentious, swaggering display of courage”; putting on a brave front for show. Displays of courage are sometimes overrated – we commend those who have picked themselves up from a difficult experience. In so doing, we tend to mask those who are still in the midst of wallowing in sadness, making bravado an attractive option. It is superficial recovery. In this piece I hope to propose that the act of basking in our sadness, too, takes courage. In my favourite read of all time, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, Dobelli warns against believing in the idea that something has to “get worse before it gets better”. The theory that things have to worsen before improving is a dangerous one to believe for things that traditionally follow a linear progression – if a marketing technique is proposed to improve sales, why should a dip in sales after the publicity stint happen before sales begin to pick up again? In the case of recovering from sadness, though, I do think we sometimes have to trod through the phase of “getting worse before getting better”.

This weekend I’m on a retreat – consecutive off days from work to find time for myself and family, for the communities that have been so much a part of my growth (gratitude) and for the reflections that necessarily follow results release(introspection). For a start on Friday, I had the privilege of attending the Words Go Round Event part of Singapore Writer’s Festival Outreach Program. During which, inspiring spoken word poet Marc Nair and singer/songwriter Crystal Goh spoke of the Diamonds on the Street Program they had run in a girls’ home: the idea is that words shape what we make out of our experiences. In the program, through songwriting and poetry, these girls were taught to reframe their experiences. Every narrative of crisis can have two versions – one in which we are the victims, the other in which we are survivors. Whichever we choose to tell, the tears and difficult emotions from the setback are necessary details. The focus on these details are as important as the conclusion we choose to make at the end of the story.

I once wrote about the importance of telling ourselves an oscillating narrative – instead of telling ourselves the story of our becoming in a consistent upward or downward trend, we should acknowledge all the ups and downs with due credit for it is the oscillation that turns into our strength. Then, courage would not only be to get up after a down but to allow ourselves to be down following an up. It takes courage to admit you’re not ok and to cry. There is strength in experiencing weakness and vulnerability.

For this reason, I got chills from listening to spoken word poet Marc Nair share his story through his poem titled “Paper Bullets”. The reverberations in his voice as he told the story so close to heart about the bullying he had once experienced allowed a curtain of inspiration to fall upon the audience before him. Every year since 2013, I have attended the National Young Leaders’ Day event by Halogen Foundation. Each time, seated in the cushioned seats of the theatre, I am inspired by the speakers’ sharing of vulnerability and stories of crisis along with the rest of the students in the crowd. Stories of crisis with their details of sadness and challenges resonate so deeply with us exactly because they are the basis for courage – the part where it “gets worse” is so, so important.

Consolation is not mandatory, but perhaps we could try reframing how we view people who are immersed in sadness from setbacks. Crying takes more courage than bravado. 

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Straight ‘A’s or Not: Make Peace

 

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Hands cold, sweaty palms, heart thumping; butterflies in our stomach and wild thoughts beginning with “what if…” running through our minds – seated in the Multi-Purpose Hall, Mr. Chan’s run-through of our “record-breaking” statistics were just numbers. The applause at our collective results served no consolation, I had to remind myself to just breathe. I had imagined for myself what results release would be like countless times, every time going through the same prep talk (“this doesn’t define you”); but at that point, my mind was blank.

Two days on from the release of results, stories commending the mental strength of fellow peers who pulled through ‘A’ Levels flood my Facebook News Feed. These stories bring to the spotlight peers who struggled with various disabilities amidst the ‘A’ Levels, each inspiring in their own way and deserving of our respect and admiration. This piece, though, is for the able-bodied peers – no disadvantage of having to take special care of health, no misfortune of distraction from home, none of that. Rather, the mixed emotions from our column of grades find themselves from a very different origin that many may fail to understand. “Good enough already, be thankful.” – you don’t understand.

For us who are fortunate to have sufficient resources, a safe home and a healthy body, the emotional stress is indescribable and it is exactly because of this privilege. When the circumstance in which you were prepared for the exam is the best anyone could ask for, the only explanation for slips in grades become us, as individuals. Today I speak for those who are disappointed with their grades, some of whom are made to feel ashamed of their disappointment, which some perceive to reflect a lack of gratitude. “At least you can get into university…” is no consolation, it is an awful lack of empathy. The birth of the disappointment lies in the gap between “what it could be” and “what it is”. The tension between the two is where the suffering lies and we create for ourselves the standards of “what it could be” – understand that and then, you can offer consolation.

My friends, you have done well. Remember the late nights studying, the consults through the holidays, the revision lectures and the after-school study groups? The hard work put in has done justice to our capability and the grades must not invalidate any of it. We’ve done what we can. Where the disparity between “what it could be” and “what it is” exists, cry and be disappointed, it is only natural. I can offer no consolation to the reality where efforts do not necessarily translate into (tangible) results – you deserved better for what you had put in. Above all, though, remember you are not your grades. Your value as a person and a learner goes far beyond what the column of grades may tell others: scholarship boards and admission officers that fail to judge holistically will be at the losing end.

I have found myself at the front of classrooms often – as a student care teacher, when running the ‘Imagining Possibilities: Cats in Hats’ initiative, rolling out our Youth Corps local project with Lakeside Family Services and in tutoring in the UPstars program. Time and again, I have championed the belief in the potential of the young regardless of academic grades. There is irony in our conviction about separating the value of a person from how they do in school when nurturing others, but being so hard on ourselves when we look at our own. Perhaps, it is the tyranny of expectations that creates the discrepancy.

Dear you, the value of you has not changed one bit in the eyes of all who truly love you. The only thing that has changed is your own view of yourself. People tend to underestimate how deeply you may experience disappointment and try to convince you it shouldn’t be how you feel. But only you can truly decide that for yourself – the disappointment is real and so is this reality. Nevertheless, the amazing things you have once done (the late nights studying, the consults through the holidays, the revision lectures and the after-school study groups) besides this silly exam are all real. The grades are a measure of how you performed on that one day, in that one exam and not of anything else. You’re okay. Love, yourself.

Lesson for this episode – to forgive ourselves.

P.S. I hope you’re not about to drop a comment or slip me a message telling me how to feel, because then you might have missed the whole point of this piece.

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